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Two on One: Attention to Details

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Two on One    

Hooray for Boobies

by Maggie Cutler, Eric Gillin, Charles Pappas

 


THE SETUP: They had to destroy Details in order to save it. Conde Nast has pulled the plug on the eighteen-year-old magazine and fired the entire staff (including editor-in-chief Mark Golin, who helmed Maxim from its American debut in 1997 until last spring). Details will be transferred to Fairchild Publications and relaunched in late fall as a high-end fashion mag, a kind of Woman’s Wear Daily with stubble and balls. The bubonic plague has hit the men’s magazine industry — P.O.V., Bikini, Icon and now Details have died untimely deaths. But does this mean Maxim, with its bountiful bosoms and “Sex! Sex! Sex!” coverlines, is the future of men’s magazines, or that the genre overall has run its course? This week, Maggie Cutler (author of The Secret Life of Kitty Lyons) drops in on the discussion, as two male reporters — Eric Gillin, a reporter at TheStreet.com (who once aspired to work at Maxim), and Charles Pappas, who has covered the men’s magazine industry for Advertising Age — flip through the topless glossies.



PAPPAS: When it became clear Details was losing, it started copying the Maxim formula, lowering the bar of self-esteem for an Alabaman like me: Whereas the old Details never knew what a male outside of the 212 area code looked or thought like, more recently you had models in have-to-go-to-the-bathroom contortions on the cover and articles incubated under the delusion that everyone between Los Angeles and New York is a grits-eating, Hee Haw-watching, cousin-marrying, Confederate flag-waving yahoo (see its regular feature “20 Books in 20 Minutes”).



GILLIN: The old Details was out there talking about vinyl clothes sold from a tiny storefront in Little Italy. Meanwhile, the dynamic duo of T&A plays well almost everywhere men are, be it a high school locker room or the Oval Office.



CUTLER: Sex-wise, I don’t get Maxim‘s pin-up style. Gear gets me hotter. They seem to feature realer-looking people. The Gear models get little folds at the waist when they turn. I see a few freckles. Pores. A breast that has some weight, and a real nipple or two. Maxim‘s monotonously static, touched-up, pre-fab poses make women look too sterile and thing-like for me to enjoy. Maxim pin-ups make me want to get my hands on these lecherous, smart-ass little wankers and show them what sex with a real woman is like. Obviously there’s an allure I don’t understand. So clue me in.



PAPPAS:Someone said sex is the opera of the poor. But most men’s mags reduce it to the level of Cats. Still, I buy Maxim — and I don’t buy Details, GQ or Men’s Journal — because it doesn’t insult you with its exclusivity, and it’s happy to put a carpal-tunnel-syndrome-inducing siren on the cover. The Maxim Group’s publisher, Lance Ford, put it this way to me: “Men don’t want Details or anything that reminds them of complications in their lives.” He wasn’t saying they’re dumb lugs, but stressed-out people with terribly complicated lives, and the last thing they need is a read that alienates them.



GILLIN: All I know is, Maxim is funny and easy to read; it’s mostly briefs and pictures. My friends like it. We talk about which girls in it are really hot, versus the ones who are only sorta hot. It’s really basic. One could trot out the rotting corpse of feminism and say Maxim objectifies women and promotes an alpha-male stereotype, but really there’s nothing political about it: Maxim‘s readership (me included) doesn’t have the balls to approach a woman and tell her he’d like to fuck her, or any of the things that Maxim tells men how to do, like performing a tracheotomy with a Bic pen. It’s an escapist fantasy.



PAPPAS:In The Picture of Dorian Gray, isn’t there a deliciously cynical moment where Gray’s admirer says of him, “Intellect destroys the beauty in any face”? But Maxim takes it too far: its models are so unmarred by intellect that, I have to confess, my testosterone gets about as much bounce as a flat basketball. Film noir femmes fatales do it for me, like Barbara Stanwyck or Lana Turner or Virgina Mayo or Linda Fiorentino, but it’s hard to distill that id into print and picture captions and a laundry list of turn-ons.



CUTLER: Then in what sense is it relaxing or “uncomplicated” to lust after some cover babe whom you don’t particularly like and who doesn’t particularly like you?


     Talking about the Maxim girls with friends sounds 100 percent right to me. Because I can see where the iconic, eyes-only style would work that way — make the babes sort of like Pokemon — fun to collect and trade with pals. But the effect of these images in the long run is as much or more about getting men to be comfortable with each other than about finding their way into the beds of actual women. A magazine that makes a guy feel intimidated by desirable women (while pretending not to) is not entirely his friend. It isn’t an escape so much as a new level of frustration.



PAPPAS:Maxim may be male-simple, but it’s done with a stage wink. There’s none of the woman-despising motif in the background you had with Playboy bunnies with those ears and powder puffs on their butts. According to Samir Husni, the author of Guide to New Consumer Magazines, lots of women read it and find it funny and non-threatening, unlike, say, Hustler. And when I asked editor-in-chief Mike Souter what areas were taboo, he said there was only one: women-bashing in any form. Men know that’s bullshit. Maxim is ironic in the way that so many things are ironic after Spy magazine helped made irony as American as apple pie.



CUTLER: But don’t tell me that Maxim isn’t talking down to you. It is talking down to you. But it’s okay, they’re doing it in a way that you enjoy. The question is, Why? I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out why millions of people enjoy a kind of jokey condescension that I instinctively find appalling. Talk show hosts personify this style and it has entered print through mass mags like Cosmo and Maxim. And what I keep concluding is that they’re about sales culture — not inner life — about creating a social carapace that protects you from rejection, perversion-run-amok, obsession you can’t afford. A lot of people choose a kind of willful self-alienation for reasons like this. Sometimes I even like them for that. It implies that, sexually and emotionally, America’s one big closet and everybody’s in it together.


     It’s true there are a lot of short-attention-span babemeisters out there, but there’s more to the triumph of Maxim over Details than that. The men’s magazine market, like the women’s magazine market, is running off a single server: Cosmo.


     The Cosmo service-mag model — big, globular, airbrushy tits, lots of clever, pro-active sexual strategizing for small gains, a cheerful view of mating as a competitive sport in which deep emotional resonance and involvement has no role and a flattering view of the reader as the center of the omniverse — is the womb for under-thirty-five publications for all sexes. Cosmo-logic has been devouring everything — from Details — whose recently fired chief, Mark Golin, started his New York City career as Bonnie Fuller’s deputy at Cosmopolitan in 1977 — to Glamour, whose meager intellectual fare was recently dumped altogether (by that selfsame Ms. Fuller, who joined from Cosmo last year).



PAPPAS:That’s the real secret of why Details failed and Maxim won: Maxim is actually a women’s magazine.


     Critics who say it’s just beer ‘n’ babes miss the point; it’s surfing the cultural wave, like Playboy did a long time ago with its martini ‘n’ minxes mix, and capturing our fears — the fear of not knowing the right shoes, the right tie, the right way to flirt, the right way to mix a drink, the right way to carve a turkey, all the guy stuff we’re supposed to know but probably don’t because half of the readers are probably latchkey kids.



CUTLER: Back in the days before women even had the balls to complain about not getting tenure at Harvard, men weren’t scared of romantically scheming Cosmo bitches because they knew that, even when women learned the Secret Sex Spots You Can Lick to Make Him Pay For Dinner, a woman’s salary was still 65 percent smaller. Liberated women had fun because licking a guy’s sex spots is a more amusing way to even the score than marching around in a “Smash Patriarchy” T-shirt. The Cosmo strategy really didn’t add up politically, but back then women didn’t do the math. Sexually, it worked.


     But then the context changed. The electronic economy liked women, the pay scale shifted and, for a het man, fucking a woman meant sleeping with someone who might end up being a boss, ally or enemy. The stakes were higher and required keener attention. The old men’s magazines had silly, one-size-fits-all strategies for getting women into bed. Today, the strategies are much more detailed and nuanced. The attitude, like that of Cosmo, is calloused and instrumental and often mean, but the message is soft: If you want those big, globular knockers in your sweaty, horny hands, better pay attention to her individual needs. Susan Faludi, in her book Stiffed, thinks that men have been turned into ornamental objects by consumer culture, and cites Details as one of the symptoms — but men are not being turned into anything that simple and the cause isn’t really consumer culture, which goes back to the ’50s and was dumb and often virulent. I like Maxim for being snotty, tit-mad, yuk-yuk and irreverent, but it has a nihilistic twistiness in it that’s new and spooky. I wish it had a better sense of where the fun actually ends.



GILLIN: It’s funny how something as stupid as cartoonish tits, blemish-free skin and wet T-shirts can get people in such an uproar. But Maxim ultimately triumphed because its consistency of vision. Details, once a downtown club magazine with a gay sensibility, has always been the most pretentious of the men’s mags, and there’s nothing worse than a pretentious rag that can’t settle on an editorial voice. It started as a two-color, New York City–only publication, serving a trendy audience with avant-garde needs, and it wasn’t too long ago when everyone thought Details was the hottest thing to happen to men’s mags. But most guys who bought clothes at the mall didn’t really feel that; they didn’t live it and they didn’t even dream about it anymore. But then it couldn’t decide who it was trying to serve. The homosexual inside every man? The professional with club-kid tendencies? The lad’s lad who loves shagging and lagers?


     And ultimately Maxim isn’t just about the pin-ups. Really, it’s not a joke. People read Maxim for the articles. Maxim can only really threaten you with its cocksure, leery pages. It’s just like girls who feel uncomfortable in the basement of a fraternity house where there are a few drunk guys and just two drunk girls. Nothing may happen, but the fear is certainly there.



CUTLER: Maxim‘s big joke is about male anxiety, but I don’t see how Maxim‘s way of, ahem, handling the problem is apolitical. Because it publishes monthly and sells a whole identity, not just a spring break, I think that rather than provide “escape” it leads its devotees straight to the inner courtyard of the compound — a narrow, windowless definition of male “nature” and short-term self-interest that does the ol’ wiener-noodle combo more harm than good.


     It’s great to read at the dentist, or for one-nighters, but when a girl’s looking for an amazing, sexy guy for real, a subscription copy of Maxim on the cocktail table tells her to pack up her slingback pumps, cover her nipples and run.



PAPPAS:Maxim may share gang colors with Bond girls, Lara Croft, Scores and the Sports Illustrated 3-D Swimsuit Issue, but, as Woody Allen put it in Stardust Memories, “Isn’t empty sex better than no sex at all?”





©2000 Maggie Cutler,